Read: Inside Trump’s voter-fraud crusade
New Jersey was the most enlightened of the original 13 states where voting rights were concerned. It allowed free African Americans to vote and was the only state to extend voting rights to women in its constitution. By contemporary standards, this attempt at women’s suffrage was paltry—because New Jersey had property requirements for voting and married women could not legally own property, only single women managing a household could cast a ballot. Still, by the standards of the age, the Garden State was doing something unique and shocking. Voting was to the Jersey girls of the early 1800s what leopard print is to Jersey girls of today.
At first, as the historians Judith Apter Klinghoffer and Lois Elkis document in their article “The Petticoat Electors,” Jersey politicians enthusiastically courted women’s votes. Typical was the enthusiastic yet condescending toast offered in Bloomfield: to “the Republican fair; may their patriotic conduct in the late elections add an irresistible zest to their charms.”
But the woman’s vote was not evenly distributed between the parties: Starting around the turn of the 19th century, women began reliably choosing John Adams’s Federalists over Thomas Jefferson’s Republicans (no relation to the modern-day party).
Nor was that the old New Jersey Republican Party’s only problem. A series of parochial power struggles had driven a wedge between liberal Republicans in the northern part of the state and moderate Republicans in the south. To bring the two sides back together before the 1808 presidential election, a compromise was proposed: Northerners got a new courthouse in Newark, and southerners got a bill raising property requirements for voting. Chucking lower-income, Republican-leaning voters from the pool, however, required party leaders to find a Federalist-leaning bloc of voters to balance them out. Women, along with African Americans, were the perfect targets. The state legislature in 1807 booted both groups from the voting rolls.
America’s first women voters didn’t lose the franchise because of sexism. They lost the franchise because a party wanted to win an election, and women’s votes stood in the way.
Jemele Hill: I still don’t know if my vote will be counted in Florida.
But here’s the important thing, at least as far as today’s political climate is concerned. Anti-women’s-suffrage leaders never admitted that they were rewriting the rules for their party’s benefit. Instead, they came up with an excuse. And that excuse was voter fraud. In 1802, when Republicans lost a state legislative seat by a single vote, they claimed a married woman and a female slave had cast fraudulent votes for the Federalist candidate. In fact, the first woman was separated from her husband, and the second was free. If politicians were ashamed to find their claims “unsubstantiated,” their apologies were never recorded.